Friday, 30 July 2010

What would we give to have heard Paganini playing, even in a recording? He apparently mesmerised his audiences; but how? Just by incredible technique? His collective works suggest that it was not all technique.

I wonder this when listening to a good new recording (Naxos, of course) by Philippe Quint in which he plays an hour of Paganini-Kreisler arrangements with piano (not, alas, including the rather interesting first movement of Paganini's first concerto in its Kreisler re-write, with orchestra). I do not like Paganini's caprices with a plonking piano "accompaniment" (nor do I like a piano added to Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas à la Schumann). The Paganini caprices just do not need a piano filling in harmonies in the background. Quint plays three of the caprices, and I wish he had played them solo.

I have never before heard, nor owned a recording of, Paganini's Variations on "Non più mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola (twelve and a half minutes). Which is where I would have liked to be able to compare Paganini to Quint, and others. These variations (like the "di tanti palpiti" variations also on this CD), contain many passages where the violin plays melodies in double-stopped harmonics. As every violinist knows, to play extended passages in double-stopped harmonics is extremely difficult. Quint plays all such passages carefully and with grim determination ... and accurately. But did Paganini just toss them off insouciantly and with much aplomb? Or did he approach them in the same way as Quint, and others?

I admire Quint's accuracy and style. I do miss the kind of swashbuckling, daredevil approach I suspect Paganini would have brought to the originals. I would like to have heard Kreisler play all these works a 100 years ago when he would have been 35 years old and in top form; I suspect Kreisler would have brought much charm to the music. Quint does well, and his pianist, Dmitriy Cogan, plonks and plinks discreetly where required. But I suspect I would have preferred Nicolò Paganini, or Fritz Kreisler in his prime.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

After 55 years, it takes a very special performance of the Brahms violin concerto to hold my interest. So I was pleased today to be able to listen with avid interest to Sergey Khachatryan broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia orchestra (14 June 2010). This is a warm, mellow, lyrical performance of the work from both soloist and conductor. A few fluffs and rhythmic instabilities from time to time, but the recording studio has lied to us that violinists can play a 40 minute concerto without one doubtful note (thanks too often to 186 takes and patches).

Not the least remarkable, for me, was the quality of sound on my CD-R disc, recorded from the BBC site off the web. I have many, many recordings of the Brahms concerto that are worse than this in terms of balance, violin sound, and recorded sound.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The latest Cembal d'Amour CD of David Nadien is pretty good. Nadien plays the Franck and Debussy sonatas, a couple of short bits, and the Prokofiev sonata for two violins (with Ruggiero Ricci). Perfectly acceptable recording quality is from 1970.

All the usual Nadien attributes are to the fore: fleet tempo, fast vibrato, spot-on intonation, and a suave dynamism. Admittedly the Debussy and Franck sonatas sound more American than Franco-Belgian, but one listens to Nadien for great violin playing, not necessarily for authentic interpretations. The duo sonata with Ricci comes off very well indeed and makes for enthralling listening.

The pianist, someone called David Hancock, is a bit of a weak link in the Franck and Debussy which are true duo sonatas and call for complete equality of charisma between violinist and pianist. Hancock belongs to the Emamuel Bay school of accompanists, and one can never confuse him with Alfred Cortot (in partnership with Jacques Thibaud). As soon as the violin plays, Hancock retreats obsequiously to the background. But one buys a David Nadien CD to sit back and listen to incredible violin playing, not necessarily for ideal interpretations. With dozens of recordings of the Franck and Debussy in my collection, I can look elsewhere for well-balanced interpretations, if necessary. For the Franck sonata, there are Kyung-Wha Chung and Radu Lupu, Christian Ferras and Pierre Barbizet, Arthur Grumiaux and Georgy Sebök, Yehudi Menuhin and his sister in 1936, Vadim Repin and Nikolai Lugansky, Thibaud and Cortot, plus many others. For the Debussy there are Chung and Lupu, Ferras and Barbizet, Graffin and Désert, Grumiaux and Hajdu, Ginette and Jean Neveu, Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes, Thibaud and Cortot ... plus, plus, plus as they say in American hotels.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A correction to my comments on Thomas Zehetmair playing the Elgar violin concerto: the recording is really quite good, after all. You just need to turn the volume up a few notches then "dim and distant" vanish. I just hope my neighbours are Elgar-lovers.

And the performance really is exceptionally good. Knocks the socks off most of the competition (except, perhaps, the 1938 Sammons). But the recording certainly beats Sammons! This is probably the Elgar performance I shall now take down off the shelf any time I want to wallow in the violin concerto. Zehetmair has not, in the past, been a violinist who showed up on my radar; mainly, I suspect, because he rarely has played the kind of music that appeals to me.
Much of the music of the late- or post-Romantics is full of angst and neuroses: one thinks of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninov and Elgar. Some musicians ladle kilos of extra angst on the music, viz Bernstein in Mahler, or Nigel Kennedy or Menuhin in the Elgar violin concerto. Others choose to play the music "straight" and let the neurotic bits speak for themselves, viz Haitink in Mahler, or Albert Sammons in the Elgar.

I prefer the straight approach, which is why, in a concerto so lucky with recordings, I have always liked Sammons, Heifetz, Kyung-Wha Chung, Dong-Suk Kang and Isabelle van Keulen rather than Menuhin, Kennedy, Zukerman, Campoli or Hilary Hahn. Also why I prefer Casals in the Elgar cello concerto to the famous Jacqueline du Pré.

And which is one reason why I have enjoyed the new recording of the Elgar concerto by Thomas Zehetmair. He plays it straight, and does not slow down and wallow in sentimental passages à la Kennedy (who verges on the ludicrous at times, but not as ludicrous as Igor Oistrakh in a highly unmemorable Russian recording). Only slight minus for the Zehetmair is the Hallé recording, which is a bit dim and distant with the violin entombed in the general orchestral sound. But the performance as a whole is highly enjoyable. A plus is the idiomatic and no-nonsense accompaniment of Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra. My sixteenth recording of the Elgar violin concerto. And one well worth having.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

In classical music, fame is somewhat fickle and unpredictable. Mediocre conductors can become "famous". Talented violinists and pianists can become international stars. Exceptional pianists and violinists can remain relatively unknown as, for more obvious reasons, can potentially famous conductors.

These thoughts on listening to Willem Noske (who?) playing Mozart's 4th and 5th violin concertos, plus Henriëtte Bosmans's (who?) Concert Piece for Violin and Orchestra.

Mozart was only 19 when he wrote K 218 and K 219 in 1775. It is thus somewhat ridiculous to hear them played by Yehudi Menuhin and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan (for example) or Isaac Stern and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Willem Noske is ideal; accurate intonation, and happy to project this young man's music. Too many cadenzas -- which may be historically accurate, but they do jar. No wonder that, after Mendelssohn, many composers took to dictating their own cadenzas. In these live performances, K 218 dates from 1940 (Concertgebouw Orchestra) and K 219 from 1971 (Residentie Orchestra). I like these appropriate performances a lot.

Ms Bosman lived from 1895 until 1952. Her concerto is by no means nondescript; in fact, it is a lot more interesting than most 20th century violin concertos. Alas, unknown and probably never played today; this live performance dates from 29 September 1962. The finale maybe is not up to the rest of the work, but that tends to be a feature of many concerto finales. Off-hand, only the Shostakovich 1st concerto, and the Elgar concerto, have 20th century finales that I quite look forward to.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Yesterday saw the demise of my entire LP collection, plus LP player. The collection that I started in 1955 has now been given away (except for a few nostaligic LPs from the 1955-7 period). About 100 or so LPs were left from the last savage cull of 3-4 years ago. Sad to see them go; but I never have played them over the past ten years, and coupling up the LP player took up valuable space. And, also, I have more than enough CDs that are too seldom played. I still have one LP deck that plugs directly into a computer USB port for transfers from LP to CD, so I can still do the occasional transfer.

My spicy squid dish has now reached perfection. But I must cut back on the chillies and Cayenne pepper!